Surrounded by limestone mountains and terraced hillsides, the chalky brown Mekong river crawls through serene and stunning Luang Prabang in Laos. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city of 100,000 attracted more than 1 million tourists in the past five years, according to LaoVoices, a Lao news and culture website. As the government continues to improve tourist sites and infrastructure, more and more visitors are likely to show up, turning this backpacker favorite into one of the world’s hottest up-and-coming destinations.
Luang Prabang was awarded “Top City in the World” in 2011 by UK-based Wanderlust, a travel magazine and website, beating out the bright lights and big city life of perennial favorites San Francisco, Vienna, and Stockholm. Additionally, the flood gates have opened as China recently loosened visa restrictions and its citizens can now travel more freely to Laos.
Perched above the mighty Mekong, Luang Prabang is a captivating beauty bursting with historical and natural attractions. The streets are lined with well-preserved, traditional architecture fused with 19th century European influence. The cuisine evokes hints of French colonialism (delicious baguette sandwiches are sold in shops and on street corners). Every day at dawn, monks draped in bright orange and buttery robes collect alms from locals and inquisitive travelers. Ornate, gold-adorned Buddhists temples provide a calm respite for moments of meditation and reflection. The arts and crafts night market is the best in the country and is an ideal place to practice your bargaining skills for colorful purses, carvings, and scarves.
Adventure-seeking travelers have their choice of activities, from elephant rides through the dense jungle, to hiring a boat for day trips out to Buddha-filled caves or Kuang Si Falls, a multi-level waterfall flanked by magnificent, aqua blue, natural pools ideal for swimming. After a day of activity, recharge at one of Luang Prabang’s many spas, where a professional massage, facial, or body scrub costs a mere fraction of the price you would pay at home. Same goes for cooking classes, where an all-day introduction to Lao ingredients and recipes will cost you around $25. There’s nothing quite as relaxing as watching the sunset along the Mekong while sipping a ubiquitous BeerLao.
Luang Prabang boasts an international airport with direct flights to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Vientiane, Hanoi, and Siem Reap, making travel within the region much easier than taking the twisting, winding roads prone to landslides. Boats cruise daily to and from the Thai border. The city has the best selection of hotels in the country; no chains exist and there’s accommodation for everyone – budget, boutique, eco lodges, or the ultimate splurge where you could drop several hundred dollars for five-star services.